On Syriana

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Fox News has the first review of what will soon be known as a highly controversial film

Syriana is a thriller but it can be a bit confusing. The basic story is that an oil company has set up shop in the Gulf, just as a merger is going through. The local royal Arab family is in the middle of a succession as the Emir (king) is about to step aside for one of his two sons: an idiot, and a sensitive, forward thinker. (Guess who gets the job.) Clooney plays a CIA agent who’s a little over the hill and washed up. But he’s onto the fact that the government and the oil companies are trying to stay in control through the manipulation of who becomes king.

There are murders and international intrigue, as well as two subplots. One involves Matt Damon as an American derivatives trader living in Geneva with his beautiful wife (Amanda Peet) and their two very cute little boys. The other is about two young Arab men looking for work and being courted by fringe terrorist groups. Damon is so good that he is likely to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work. Of Clooney’s whole “Ocean’s 11” posse, Damon is easily the most talented.

“He’s it, the real thing,” Clooney said when we talked about Damon.

Damon is a standout, but there are plenty of “smaller” roles played by terrific actors including Tom McCarthy, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, Mazhar Munir, Jeffrey Wright, Tim Blake Nelson (who has a funny speech explaining the historical importance of corruption) and the memorable Alexander Siddig (as the smart prince). Indeed, the actors are so uniformly good from the start that they all seem very real, as does the situation. This is ‘Fahrenheit 411’, meaning full of urgent information that rings true in every scene. Liberals and conservatives all have to put gas in their cars. One look at the prices, and you know that “Syriana” is not far off base.

From what I’ve seen in the previews, the message and topic are too important to miss…

Syriana is not always easy to follow. Sometimes I felt like I needed a study guide. But Gaghan has made such an engrossing film that you can actually suspend disbelief and just go with it. Once you’re in, you’re in, too. I don’t know if it will make money or be a Best Picture candidate, but Syriana is the most intelligent movie of 2005 so far, and incredibly satisfying.

One note though: I would change that poster and ad showing a blind-folded, bearded man. It’s a huge turn-off. It looks like a torture documentary or a prisoner of war saga. Warner Bros. would do well to sell Syriana as a thriller soap opera with intrigue, a la “Three Days of the Condor,” and make sure to put Damon and Peet’s pictures in there with Clooney’s.

Do see this. See this movie above all else this Oscar season.

But suspend disbelief until the facts are confirmed…

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